Tuesday, 5 May 2015

“A Night-Piece on Death”

‘Graveyard Poetry’ is an often-cited influence on the early Gothic, but the poems themselves are rarely addressed in that context beyond their use of funereal imagery. Thomas Parnell’s “A Night-Piece on Death” is usually identified as the earliest example of the genre, first published (posthumously) in 1721 or 1722.

The poem itself is a simple iambic tetrameter, arranged in rhyming couplets. Its sentiment is equally simple: death is nothing to be afraid of. The atmosphere of the poem is rich, conjuring the dark blue and silver of contemplative night before plunging amongst the tombs and sepulchres of both the great and humble. Life is short, it is implied, and the speaker questions how meaningful our brief lives can ever be. The poor, the ambitious, and the great all eventually lie beneath the earth. Whatever monuments they build over themselves, the dead (or perhaps, the monuments themselves), ‘are senseless of the fame they give’. The poem is far from nihilistic, however.

What I find most compelling about the poem is not its tombstones, or the arresting stanza where the dead rise from the earth, but its conviction that the fear of death is entirely made from the mystique that humanity cloaks it in. Life itself is a prison, illuminated only by the lamp-light of Christian faith, that death releases us from. The pious soul, with a joy ‘transcending sense’, sees death as an escape from the darkness of life – allowing us to emerge, blinking, into the light of heaven.

To hear the poem read aloud please check out the following link:

Further Reading:
Rodney Stenning Edgecombe, “Thomas Parnell's "Night-Piece on Death" and Edward Young's Night Thoughts”, ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews, 20:4 (2007), 6-7.
Evert Jan Van Leeuwen, “Funeral Sermons and Graveyard Poetry: The Ecstasy of Death and Bodily Resurrection”, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 32 No. 3 (2009), 353-371.
Eric Parisot (2011) “Piety, Poetry, and the Funeral Sermon: Reading Graveyard Poetry in the Eighteenth Century”, English Studies, 92:2 (2011), 174-192.
In addition, Valancourt Books intends to publish a new anthology of Graveyard Poetry (edited by Jack G. Voller) in 2015.

Richard Gough Thomas is a postgraduate researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University. He enjoys reading 'Graveyard Poetry' in graveyards (or, you know, in the pub... wherever's easiest).

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